Thursday, January 19, 2012

a simple lunch

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on January 18, 2012.

It was two days before Christmas. I was up to my eyeballs in sugar and butter, and nothing was coming out right.

There was my homemade mozzarella cheese made from not-quite-spoiled milk that tasted like not-quite-spoiled cheese. There was the pretzel crack—an addictive salted caramel chocolate affair—that didn’t crack, so the chickens ate it, along with some butterscotch caramel bars that resembled something straight out of your Great-Aunt Mildred’s attic. (Obviously, caramel is my nemesis.) There were the orange chocolate chunk cookies that spread out thin as pancakes, the eggnog that tasted flat (perhaps because I left out the rum?), and some peppernuts that weren’t peppery enough.

Lunchtime came, and, discouraged, frustrated, and in desperate need of real food, I set about fixing myself a simple lunch from a bag of fresh greens from my parents’ West Virginia garden and bit of cornmeal that was hanging out in my freezer.

I brought some chicken broth to a boil and sprinkled in a little cornmeal and a pinch of salt. The polenta simmered until thick, at which point I whisked in a small handful of Parmesan to finish it off. While the polenta was cooking, I tore several enormous, dark green collard and kale leaves into pieces and tossed them about in a hot skillet until they were soft, glossy from butter, and slightly blackened in places. I piled the greens on my plate alongside the puddle of polenta, vigorously peppered both, and, practically shaking with excitement (and sugar overload), I dug in.

Oh my. It was the best thing I had eaten all day—bracing, clean, comforting, the perfect counterpoint to all the sweet. The greens were sharp and slightly bitter, the polenta was nubbly with bits of corn and salty from the cheese and broth. With each bite, I felt calmer, less irritable, nourished.

The most amazing part? The simplicity of real food—and that it took all of ten minutes to prepare. My day was redeemed.

Cheesy Polenta with Sauteed Greens

Sauteeing results in firm, full-bodied greens. If you prefer them softer, steam them instead, and be sure to finish them off with a drizzle of brown butter.

the polenta:
1 cup chicken broth or water
1/4 cup coarse cornmeal
a generous pinch of salt
2-4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Bring the broth to a boil. Sprinkle in the cornmeal, whisking steadily. Stir in the salt. Reduce the heat to low and allow to simmer, stirring occasionally for 8-10 minutes, or until thick. Stir in the cheese and taste to correct seasonings.

the greens:
2-3 cups torn hardy greens, such as kale, collards, mustard, etc., tough stems removed
1 tablespoon butter
pinch of salt

Melt the butter in a skillet, and add the greens and salt. Using a fork, toss the greens until they have brightened in color, softened, and slightly blackened in places.

Spoon the polenta into a bowl, mound the greens on top, and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

making breakfast

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on January 4, 2012.

“I want mine with yogurt and jelly,” my five-year-old announces. “But I want to stir it in myself.”

He vigorously slaps his spoon around as he beats in the jelly, creating a sort of thick milk soup. I hand him a scoop of granola and watch as he carefully sprinkles it on top. Another stir, and he starts to eat.

My children all have their particular way of eating their granola. The youngest two like it stirred into jelly-spiked homemade plain yogurt, while my older daughter prefers hers with milk and whatever dried or frozen fruit is on hand. My older son eats his straight up, with milk—a man-sized bowl filled to the brim with toasted oaty goodness.

This morning, as the rest of the bleary-eyed children shuffle into the kitchen and gather round the table, I eye the large granola jar sitting on the counter—we’re almost out again. It’s high-time I relinquish the granola making to one of the kids, I think.

I can hardly bring myself to buy boxed cereals anymore. My kids love them, of course, and my husband and I used to talk over multiple bowls of milk-doused, crunchy, fluff-o-nothing after the kids were in bed at night. But boxed cereals are expensive, not to mention a waste of calories, so I’ve taken to buying oats in 50-pound sacks and mixing up my own version of breakfast.

Later that morning, I walk my older daughter through the ingredient list, making sure she understands the difference between quick oats and rolled and showing her where I keep the raw wheat germ and the cracked wheat. I watch closely as she measure the salt and sugar—stop tasting it!—and then, after she’s added the water and oil, I demonstrate how to stir with a chopping motion so all the oats get equally moistened. Together, we divide the granola between the two pans and slip them into the oven.

The following day she practices making the granola again. I quiz her to make certain she grasps the procedure, but I keep my distance while she measures and pours. The next time around, she’ll do it all on her own.

Sooner or later, I’ll teach this task to the rest of my children, and before I know it, they won’t be just eating their breakfast granola—they’ll be making it, too.

Basic Granola

While this granola is inexpensive and nutritious, uses common pantry ingredients, goes with anything (milk, yogurt, ice cream, pudding), and pleases a wide range of palates (no nuts or dried fruits to rebel against), you can, of course, change things up to make it as expensive, fancy, and complicated as you like. Add nuts or spices to the raw ingredients, use honey instead of the sugar, or stir in some dried fruit when it has finished baking. Granola is meant to be tweaked, so play with it until it suits your tastes.

7 cups quick (not instant) oats
7 cups rolled oats
2 cups raw wheat germ
2 cups whole wheat flour or cracked wheat
2 cups white sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 ½ cups flavorless oil, such as canola
1 3/4 cups water

Stir the dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Add the wet ingredients and stir to combine. Divide the granola between two large, ungreased, sided baking sheets (I use jelly roll pans). Bake the granola at 250 degrees for 2-4 hours, or until golden brown and crunchy. During baking, rotate the pans and stir the granola every half hour to break up the large chunks and allow for even toasting. Let the granola cool before storing in an airtight container at room temperature.